An extrovert's experiment with silence

Next to fasting, ‘silence and solitude’ is probably my most avoided of the spiritual disciplines.  I really like the idea of it and I enjoy reading about it. But when it comes to implementation, I fall down.

“In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it.” (Isaiah 30:15 NIV-UK)

I don’t mind repenting – and I have plenty to work with there – but the resting and quietness I struggle with. And, if I am honest, the trust can be a little lacking as well.

“When we shut off the noise, then the deeper, beautiful sounds of the love of God have a chance to be heard by our souls.” – Abbess of Jamberoo Abbey

So into that context, I was listening to the Centre for Public Christianity’s podcast episode, ‘Silence and Spirituality in Wild Places‘, where the ever-wise Justine Toh talked about her time at Jamberoo Abbey, a Benedictine Abbey a couple of hours south of Sydney. While there, she spoke with the Abbess, who had this to say on silence:

“You might not like being in your space, in silence … thoughts might come to you, past memories might come to you. And in your space, in silence, you cannot run away but, ultimately, if you face those things, you are the winner … because when we shut off that noise, then the deeper, beautiful sounds of the love of God have a chance to be heard by our souls.”

Who wouldn’t be drawn to that? The thought of getting even a little closer to those “deeper, beautiful sounds” was so irresistible that I, despite living in Melbourne, was soon googling train times to see how I might combine an upcoming work trip in Sydney with a trip down the coast and up the mountain.

The Abbey website quotes Isaiah: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord.” (2:3). Mountains have always been places where people went to find God, places of encounter: pilgrims to Mt Zion, Moses and Elijah to Mt Sinai and now, having emailed the Abbey and booked two nights in one of their hermitage cottages, Susannah to Mt Jamberoo.

It would be even easier for Sydney people with cars to get to the Abbey but the train ride down the coast, past long stretches of beaches with breaking waves, was beautiful. It began the decompression of my soul, the retreat from the noise of the city. The taxi ride up the mountain was beautiful in a different way: super lush – crazy lush for January – green pastures, grazing dairy cows at the foot of the rather severe-looking cliff faces of Mt Jamberoo.

Oddly, you might think, I had decided not to take a Bible but, instead, focus on just one piece of Scripture, Psalm 23. I reckoned if I could just take that in properly, to my heart rather than just my head, I would be in a very good place indeed. And, when I came to my cabin, named after St Julian (of “all will be well and all manner of things will be well” fame) and looked out over rolling green meadows, I felt my decision divinely endorsed.

I didn’t feel alone. I felt deeply that I was anything but.

The next 36 hours passed quickly – too quickly really. The day was punctuated by joining in the Benedictine canonical hours of prayer, with soul-balming psalms sung in the chapel. I am not a Catholic – more a hands-up Anglican – but I do love learning from their contemplative saints and beautiful liturgy; there is comfort in the structure and peace in the quiet, ordered worship.

In between, I  stayed in my cabin or on the decking, reading Psalm 23 and a meditation on Psalm 23, Life Without Lack by Dallas Willard. Though alone, bar the odd glimpse of another guest, I didn’t feel alone. I felt deeply that I was anything but. “For thou art with me” was, if not a euphoric epiphany, a quiet, felt reality. I began to grasp this ‘rest’ business, an unclenching of heart and head, of soul – just being, not doing, and giving God some space.

A day punctuated by prayer and rest and reflection is simple. Meals (with provisions available for all but dinner and cooked and eaten in your cabin) came and went, as did cups of tea with mint from the nearby herb garden. I didn’t think to miss my normal, ‘must-have’, morning soy latte. A singularity of attention, untrammelled by work, deadlines, appointments, conversations, tasks, soaked up the time; and, much too soon, I was heading back down the mountain and into the world again.

Thirty-six hours hardly renovates the soul, but it certainly knocked some walls down. Perhaps most importantly, I realised silence was not something that I needed to avoid – the retreat has actually given me a taste for it and I look forward to a longer meal.

I want to go back. It might be to Jamberoo Abbey or it might just be to the silence – and the loving God we find when we get there.

“We need no wings to go in search of God but have only to find a place where we can be alone and look upon God present within us.” – Teresa of Avila

Maybe I’ll try fasting next …

Susannah McFarlane is Head of Publishing at Bible Society Australia. She is also an author and has written some of Australia’s most successful children’s book series, as well as non-fiction for adults, and the Who? What? Why? How? Easter and Christmas books.